As horse owners we have a duty of care to our furry four legged friends. Unfortunately horses cannot speak to us as people would when they feel ill, so we need to train ourselves to understand the hints they give us through body language.
In the animal world, species are divided into ‘fight or flight’ animals. It is important to know that horses are of the ‘flight’ category, many of you horse owners would be familiar with this as some horses are more ‘flighty’ than others. Some horses will not bat an eye lid as you walk through the bush with kangaroos bouncing left and right, while other horses will jump and fly sideways at their own shadow!
Although horses have been domesticated for many years they are considered flight animals as they are essentially prey animals and still at times expect to be eaten by a lion or some other predator. Keeping this in mind, as horse owners, if we see our horse is showing any sign of pain eg: lame (limping) it is probably quite significant pain they are feeling. We know this because as prey animals they are programmed to not show any weakness if at all possible, as in the wild this would make them a target for predators.
If our horse is in pain we need to listen to their non verbal hints in order to take action before it progresses to a pain response we cannot miss eg: thrashing on the ground with colic.
It is an awful feeling when you know that something has been ‘not quite right’ with your horse for some time, only to get the vet out who informs you that they have been in pain and you didn’t realise.
Following are some of the most common occurrences that cause pain in your horse and how to identify them.
Lameness – lameness is sadly a very common occurrence in the horse world. Sometimes lameness can be very obvious with the horse limping so badly their head will bob up and down dramatically with every step. Sometimes it will be more subtle and the horse will appear to be a bit uneven when walking and not noticeably sore until it starts trotting. Some horses will be so uncomfortable that they do not move at all. You may have noticed them in a particular part of the paddock in the evening and come back in the morning to find them in the same place. Often if this happens you will notice that all the grass around their immediate reach will be eaten.
All lameness should be investigated. At no time should it be assumed that the horse is ‘putting it on’ or ‘pretending to be lame’.
Sore Eyes – Eyes are a very precious and vital structure for our horses. Eye problems are one of the major conditions that vets treat as an emergency so it is important for us to be able to identify when something is not right. Horses eyes are more sensitive than a lot of owners realise. It is best to remind yourself of how painful it is when you get a tiny speck of dust or dirt in your own eye. Then imagine what it must be like when our horse gets a whole grass seed in theirs.
Signs that a horse has something wrong with its eye or eyes include – squinting or holding one eye half or all the way closed. You may also notice excessive discharge from one or both eyes, we are all familiar with the eye ‘goobas’ that we wipe away for our horses every now and then, and this is ok as the eye has merely lubricated some foreign material or dust as a form of self-protection. However if the eye continues to run or the horse shows any sign of squinting you should contact your vet immediately even if it is just to discuss what you are seeing.
Colic – this is the term used for a wide range of symptoms indicating that the horse has some sort of abdominal pain/discomfort.
Symptoms can range from quite mild to very obvious. Mild signs include: reluctance to move, turning their head to look at their abdomen, mild pawing at the ground, and playing with water (not drinking much but mouthing it with their lips and splashing it around with their mouth).
More obvious symptoms include : all of the above with more vigorous pawing, lying down and rolling often violently. The horse may be sweaty and breathing heavily too.
Sometimes a bout of colic will happen while you are not at the paddock, the horse may have been really painful and by the time you arrive he looks tired but standing quietly with no sign of pain. It is important to not assume that it is over, sometimes horses will go through a great amount of pain then go through a period of ‘calm’ before it gets progressively worse.
Reasons you might suspect your horse has had a bout of colic – when you arrive at your paddock or place of agistment and your horse looks exhausted, has mud or dirt on him indicating that he has been rolling, any skin off around his head especially around his eyes or his eyes might look puffy, is sweaty or has dried sweat on him or is breathing rapidly or strangely. If you notice any of these symptoms contact your vet immediately as there could be an underlying illness and the horse may need some fluid replacement and pain relief.
Laminitis (founder) – Most horse owners would have heard this term but many are not familiar with the signs and symptoms to look for. Many owners believe that if their horse is not obese that they cannot get laminitis, this is not true, all horses can get laminitis for many different reasons.
Laminitis is a life threatening disease and should be treated very seriously by owners.
Symptoms to look out for include: increased breathing, reluctance to move, leaning back appearance, heat in hooves, increased digital pulse, lying down more than normal.